There should be no refuge for the butcher of Belgrade

The greatest danger is that we believe the Balkan problem is now solved. It isn't

Share

The smell caught us on the road outside. Even now, I am surprised at the impact it had on me. I had been around death a lot in the past. The smell of corpses was familiar territory. But this was a smell from another world entirely. I think my shock had a lot to do with the scene of normality in the town itself. Tuzla was bathed in pure autumn sunlight; the town was part of a post-war present, and the smell reeked of bad memories. Inside the mortuary, a group of labourers was busy with hoses and brushes. They hauled muddied plastic sacks from the morgue into the courtyard. As they cleaned away the mud, one of them pointed to the initials stencilled on each of the bodybags: "JNA". Yugoslav National Army.

The smell caught us on the road outside. Even now, I am surprised at the impact it had on me. I had been around death a lot in the past. The smell of corpses was familiar territory. But this was a smell from another world entirely. I think my shock had a lot to do with the scene of normality in the town itself. Tuzla was bathed in pure autumn sunlight; the town was part of a post-war present, and the smell reeked of bad memories. Inside the mortuary, a group of labourers was busy with hoses and brushes. They hauled muddied plastic sacks from the morgue into the courtyard. As they cleaned away the mud, one of them pointed to the initials stencilled on each of the bodybags: "JNA". Yugoslav National Army.

The dead were all Muslims, and their killers were Serbs, more specifically, Serbs who fought in a paramilitary unit alongside units of the regular Yugoslav army. I saw a heavyset figure directing the labourers. He cut away at the plastic bags with a scalpel. Every now and then he paused to turn away and catch his breath. He was the doctor in charge of preparing the bodies for the identification parade. Yes, the identification parade. The following day, relatives of people who had been killed in the area were due to come and inspect the dead. The doctor had two tasks: to make sure that nothing was lost, no little memento that might jog the memory of a relative, and to help the international war crimes investigators to establish the cause of death.

The bodies had been found a week earlier in the hills about 10 miles beyond Tuzla in the direction of Zvornik. I remember the name of the place: Donja Glumina, a huge gash in the earth into which the bodies had been neatly stacked. Back in 1992, at the beginning of the Bosnian war, the Serb paramilitaries and their allies in the JNA had been in no rush burying the dead. They had had experience of massacre and burial in Croatia the previous year and were becoming quite practised.

The images of that identification parade are seared into my memory. There was a heavy mist that morning, and the cold dampened down the smell at first.

From dawn onward, a long queue began to form up on the road. They were mostly women and old men. A group of human-rights workers took down the names and addresses and the names of their missing relatives. And then, one by one, they were led into the yard of the mortuary. The bodies had been laid out in three rows. All were in an advanced stage of decomposition. Clutching handkerchiefs to their faces, the people moved down the lines slowly. Every so often they paused to make a closer inspection of some pile of rags and bones and withered flesh.

There were several hundred bodies. Soon people began shouting. There was a lot of crying. The pain of recognition. A pair of wire-rimmed spectacles that looked like the ones Mustapha wore; an insulin needle like the one Fikrit carried with him everywhere; those Nike trainers, weren't they just like the ones Alija put on the morning he vanished? As the morning wore on and the sun rose, the smell became overpowering. Still the people kept coming. First-aid workers rushed to help those who collapsed from the sheer pain of it all.

Overhead, Nato jets were patrolling, for this was the year before the Kosovo war, when Milosevic was busy inflicting terror on another Balkan people. The West had yet to make a stand against the monster, and in Tuzla nobody believed it ever would. The people at the mortuary were refugees and they had grown old on the empty rhetoric of the politicians of Europe. That was all a long time ago. Arkan was still running his empire of psychopaths (his Tigers had been among the chief tormentors of Zvornik), and Mr Milosevic was still a man the West could do business with.

Then, he still seemed to have the sure touch. His hands were drenched in blood, but we made him the guarantor of regional peace. I wonder, do any of the men who buckled under to Serb terror in those days feel even a twinge of shame this morning? All the prime ministers and foreign ministers who snivelled and vacillated before the confident jackboots of Milosevic and Karadzic and Mladic? They don't. They will doubtless be queuing up to offer their expert analysis of his downfall on television and revising their memoirs for a new paperback edition.

Never mind that Milosevic had unleashed hell on Vukovar and Srebrenica, that he had impoverished the Serbs and ruined his country. Had he not made the fatal miscalculation of going after the Kosovo Albanians, would the West ever have invested its weapons and political muscle in the cause of his destruction? I think not. He would have been allowed to remain as the guarantor of a fantasy peace in the Balkans.

It is being said that the people of Serbia were the authors of this revolution. That is true, up to a point. But for all the poverty they have suffered, and the Nato bombing, and the conscription of their young men into the armed forces, the Serbs of Serbia are not the ones who paid the full price of the Milosevic years. Apart from Nato's blundering air campaign, the wars of the Yugoslav succession were fought in other people's territory. The Bosnians, the Croats and the Kosovars will be cheering this morning.

This is not meant to be a carping response to the end of Milosevic. I am happy to see the back of the monster. This was people power with a difference: it was based on a democratic vote. The new leadership has a mandate that goes beyond the affirmation of the crowd. In the testing days to come, that could be the deciding factor in its ability to succeed. Mr Kostunica gives the appearance of being a decent man, but experience will hopefully have taught us to wait before lauding him as the saviour of Serbian democracy. That is a judgement that can be made only when we see how he acts in power.

Of course, the sanctions must go immediately, and the financial aid long promised must start to flow. The greatest danger is that we believe the Balkan problem is now solved. It isn't. Not in the most remote sense. Bosnia is held together by the presence of IFor troops; Kosovo is a tinderbox; Serbia will take years before it welds itself into a confident democratic state. Hundreds of thousands have been murdered or driven from their homes.

The UN's human-rights representative in the Balkans had suggested that Milosevic be given immunity from prosecution in return for his speedy departure from Yugoslavia. The scenario is no longer relevant, but boy, what a stupid idea. Grant the top man immunity, and what about the rest? Do business with Milosevic one last time. The trials must go on. Just as the Croats have had to come to terms with their war crimes, so must the Serbs. And that means Mr Kostunica must move to end the immunity enjoyed by butchers such as Radko Mladic, who has used Serbia and Montenegro as a safe haven.

The reconstituting of Serbia as a state that is part of Europe, divorced irrevocably from the atavistic past, is contingent on recognising the truth about the madness of the past 10 years. I am not convinced, but there may yet be justice for the people who queued to identify their dead on that morning in Tuzla.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones